Todd and I are chatting over mugs of tea in a greasy spoon across the street from Momentum’s HQ. Tomorrow will be his first day off in three weeks. The former teacher used to work at The World Transformed, a fringe event at the Labour conference, before coming to Momentum three days after the election was called in 2017 – a whole new comms team was needed to replace the staff swept up into the leader’s office – and Todd has been there ever since. “It’s definitely aged me,” Todd sighs. He’s 27.
It may be an exaggeration to say Momentum has taken over Labour – for now, anyway – but it has certainly helped see Corbynites embedded throughout the party. Even those formerly hostile to the group value its power to mobilise huge numbers of people.
While constituency Labour parties used to be overwhelmed by the numbers turning up to canvass thanks to Momentum – the group drove Labour’s membership up to half a million – they’re now used to it. Floods of activists have been turning up to canvass at marginal constituencies during the campaign in part thanks to Momentum’s efforts. And, says Todd, there’s much less infighting: “The factional wars aren’t raging so fiercely!”
Things have certainly moved on in the past two years. “2017 was chaos. This is absolutely not chaos,” Todd says. “I wouldn’t quite go as far as ‘well-oiled machine’. But it’s pretty close.” It is now relatively well funded, too, mostly via small donations. In this campaign, Momentum has received over half a million pounds and might get over a million by the end of the campaign, according to Todd. “To put that into context, our optimistic target for the entire election was half a million,” he says. And this was at the high end of estimates. “We budgeted for less than that. We’ve had to radically rewrite budgets.”
Focusing fundraising drives around specific causes has been an important tactical change from 2017. Rather than trying to raise money by talking abstractly about fighting the Tories, Momentum’s callouts specify a concrete aim, such as the voter registration drive, and explain how donations will be used.
While there are limits on what Momentum can spend promoting Labour, there aren’t limits on ads encouraging people to vote. There are also no limits on spending aimed at Momentum’s membership. The overall approach, again, revolves around the logic of distributed organising. “A dominant logic is that we want to employ staff not to do things, but to enable volunteers to do them,” as Todd puts it. Momentum has also made its strategy completely open online. On the first day of the election campaign, it published a detailed ‘Plan to Win’. The thinking, Todd explains, is that if activists understand the plan, they will step up and give up more time.
At the start of the campaign Momentum launched Labour Legends, asking supporters to commit to a week off work to help campaigning. Todd wondered how people would react to this ‘big ask’, but more than a thousand signed up on the first day. So many offered their time that Momentum had to hire more staff to coordinate them. These people are being sent to key marginals all around the country and strategically placed for the final days of the campaign. This has also cascaded from Momentum to Labour, with the party now asking people to take polling day and the days leading up to the election off work – something Labour hasn’t done before.
Momentum has built different feedback loops to coordinate the large number of people it has mobilised. On My Campaign Map, a live chat staffed by volunteers feeds regular data about key marginals back to Momentum HQ, while regional organisers in contact with local constituency Labour parties also feed back info. Momentum has invited people to be digital canvassers if they’re unable to go door knocking: posting on local community groups online and “having the argument with people below the line, because actually those spaces are super influential,” Todd says.
What this boils down to is a voluntarist culture taking hold at the heart of Momentum. There are volunteers at every level of the organisation, including in the office running major projects. “So it’s almost like you can’t escape the movement,” Todd says. This leads to a natural seepage upwards of feedback on how messages are going down or how the ground effort is running. Many of the volunteer teams are now themselves run by volunteers, and a total of more than 1,400 volunteers are now coordinating via Slack.
Much has been made of the technological tools Momentum has developed, such as My Campaign Map, or Univotes, which advises supporters whether to vote at their home or university address. But Todd believes the organisation thrives at the intersection of digital and people.
“Most of our digital apps or our use of digital technology, is to mobilise people,” Todd says. “It’s always that intersection – between digital app and actually doing something off in the real world.”
It’s not focused on microtargeting or using technological superiority to swing an election result, Todd insists. Although Momentum is determined to get the youth vote out in key marginals ahead of polling day, it will not be spending its inflated advertising budget on hundreds of different targeted messages. “I’m personally dubious about how effective that is,” he says.
“I always say, all this very clever technology that we set up to mobilise volunteers in various ways would not work if there weren’t loads of volunteers who believed in the manifesto and the ideas that we put forward,” he adds. Momentum’s digital content wouldn’t get the traction it does if the support out there wasn’t real.
Whether Momentum can translate that support into votes come polling day is the big question. Among the young voters Momentum is depending on, turnout tends to be low. The opinion polls are therefore weighted against them. So Momentum has an ambitious plan to reach every young marginal-seat voter with its digital content by election day. Time will tell if this does the trick, and causes a massive political upset to rival Brexit.
It’s Friday 6 December, less than a week before polling day, and Paul Nicholson is more serious than the last time I visited Momentum HQ. There are a few minutes to go before the BBC debate between Johnson and Corbyn, and Nicholson is getting the computers ready for clipping.
How does he think the campaign has gone? “I don’t even know any more,” he admits, looking tired. “The thing is, you go home to rest, but it’s hard to sleep… You end up in a sort of stream of consciousness.”
Nicholson sets up a projector to screen the debate, and Momentum’s staffers start to fill the room to watch – it’s 8.30pm, but most are still working. They sit on the floor, or the few spare chairs. Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar walks in too – she’ll be tweeting her thoughts on the debate from here.
The strain of the campaign is beginning to tell – Momentum HQ is getting nervier as polling day nears. The previous week, I watched Channel 4’s climate debate here, and the atmosphere was decidedly cheerier. Nevertheless, as the debate kicks off, there are whoops for Corbyn. The UK will end up in a “relationship with nobody” he fires at Johnson over his Brexit policy, to the delight of everyone here.
There are several people on the digital team recording the footage on their computers and preparing art in case the decision comes to post clips while the debate is live. Several times the team asks Nicholson excitedly if they should post a clip of a Corbyn zinger. But he’s never quite convinced that it’ll be snappy enough to gain serious traction online.
As the debate wears on, although the media consensus is that Corbyn is giving a solid performance, frustration mounts in Momentum HQ that he isn’t landing any knockout punches against Johnson. “Call him a liar!” Sarkar shouts at one point.
Afterwards, Nicholson feels the debate was a bit flat. “There weren’t many snappy comebacks,” he tells Joe Todd, who is keen for them to post a clip anyway. Nicholson relents, though he wishes he had something with more fire to work with. “I’m just thinking of my social media likes!” he says, joking. He opts for a clip of Corbyn attacking Johnson over US trade talks: “Why did the talks go on for two years? It doesn’t take two years to say ‘no’ to privatisation of the NHS,” Corbyn declares. The clip goes up, reaching 50,000 views.
Corbyn’s leadership has been inextricably linked to Momentum’s rise from the start. But at the rate the movement is evolving, Momentum may ultimately outgrow the seventy-year-old veteran socialist. And if Labour manages to stop a Conservative majority on 12 December, it will be as much about this group’s distributed campaigning as Corbyn’s leadership.